What Is a Composite Drawing?

by Don Davis
Police composites are often inaccurate.

Police composites are often inaccurate.

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Composite drawing is a forensic tool police departments use to produce likenesses of crime suspects based on eyewitness descriptions. The likenesses are often inaccurate, but the practice of making composite drawings has an interesting history that at least partly explains their persistence as a police tool. Composite drawings began in 1882 when a Paris police clerk named Alphonse Bertillon stumbled on what he thought was a reliable way to identify criminals. "Bertillon's System" predated the use of fingerprint identification by nine years.

Anthropometry and Fingerprints

When an Argentine police official named Juan Vucetich began using fingerprints to identify criminals in 1891, he considered the prints to be only a supplement to Bertillon's System. Bertillon himself preferred to call his system "Anthropometry." The Frenchman took measurements of body parts including head length and width, the length of middle fingers, left feet and various facial features in an attempt to not only identify criminals but also identify people who were criminally inclined. Bertillon believed that criminals had criminal noses, eyes, mouths and chins, and that anyone trained in anthropometry could identify criminals at a glance.

Identi-Kit

In the 20th century, fingerprints held up to scientific scrutiny better than anthropometry, but a police tool developed in the 1950s leaned heavily on Bertillon's ideas. The tool was called the Indenti-Kit and it allowed police with no artistic training to quickly create a "likeness" of a suspect. The kit was a stack of mostly clear overlays that showed one facial feature each. Witnesses could identify a suspect's nose, eyes, mouth, chin and other features from the drawn selections included with the kit, and the features could be combined into a "composite drawing."

Misses and Hits

Police used one of these kits to create a picture of the killer of a woman named Marilyn Reese Sheppard in 1954. Jurors thought the likeness looked like her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, and he was convicted and spent more than a decade in prison in Ohio until he was acquitted after a second trial in 1966. After the Sheppard case, the original features in the Indenti-Kit were changed from drawings to photographs of actual human features that could be stacked one on top of the other.

Facial Composite Software

In the 1970s, many police departments moved away from composite drawings and began to use artists to create sketches of possible suspects based on witness suggestions. But, the venerable Identi-Kit persists in the 21st century. The company was eventually purchased by Smith & Wesson, which sold it to independent investors in 2004. The current version of the kit is called "Advanced Facial Composite Software." And, the results of that software bear an uncanny resemblance to those produced by mixing and matching Alphonse Bertillon's carefully recorded criminal features.

About the Author

Don Davis has been a professional writer since 1977. He has had numerous writing jobs, including writing news and features for the "Metrowest Daily News" and "Los Angeles Herald-Examiner." Davis has a Bachelor of Arts in English and history from Indiana State University.

Photo Credits

  • Getty Images/Getty Images News/Getty Images